Stanford claims its campus will be 100 percent solar powered . . . provided you ignore cars.
A flashy news release caught our eye this week. Stanford University is reporting that its campus will be 100 percent powered by solar energy very soon.
In the echo chamber that is social media, that claim got a lot of attention and repetition, and predictably morphed into an even more sweeping accomplishment. Climate Solutions tweeted that Stanford would be the first major university to achieve 100 percent clean energy.
To be clear, Stanford’s press release didn’t make that claim, but any time you tout “hashtag 100 percent” anything, people tend to focus on the “100” and not on the universe to which that is applied. When you read the fine print, it’s clear that the “100 percent” claim applies only the the campus buildings, not to how students, faculty, staff and visitor actually get to and from the campus to for education, research and entertainment.
Buildings get a lot of attention; you have to use energy to heat, light, and cool them, and run computers and other equipment, but as with the rest of America, the far bigger source of energy use and carbon emissions is not the buildings themselves, but the energy and pollution generated by traveling to and from them. In California, cars account for 5 times as much greenhouse gas production (28 percent) as all commercial buildings (5.5 percent).
In the case of Stanford University, The “100 percent solar” claims definitely doesn’t include the campus’s nearly 20,000 parking spaces, most of which are used by internal combustion fueled cars. About 58 percent of those working on campus arrive by private car. And that produces vastly more carbon emissions that just building operations.
To its credit, in recent years, the university has been taking steps to build more on-campus housing, and to meet the travel demand from expansion without increasing the total number of car trips, but it’s still the case that cars and travel are the university’s leading source of greenhouse gas emissions. So far the university’s own sustainability plan has counted mostly building-related emissions, and avoided counting what it classifies as “Scope 3” emissions associated with university travel. They’re planning to address those emissions in the future.
While it’s technically true that the building energy may come from solar, it’s important to recognize that the buildings have no utility unless people travel to and from them on a regular basis. The parking lots, and the cars they service are an integral–and in fact dominant–part of the university’s carbon footprint. It’s all well and good to celebrate greater use of solar power, but before anyone makes “100 percent” or zero net carbon about any particular institution, they would do well to consider all their emissions, not just one component.